Between Trumpistan and long term Decline: United States at an ‘Inflection Point’

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THE UNITED STATES’ ‘wars of choice’- the Second Gulf War and the War in Afghanistan-, the open ended so called ‘ global war on terror’, the forces of globalization and concomitantly  free(r) trade and free(r) movement of capital have all come together to wreak change on the United States. This change or  inflection point ( a term coined by the late business guru Andy Grove) is embodied by Donald Trump and his vicious, xenophobic and Islamophobic populist diatribes- gaining traction and finding resonance amongst Americans by the day. Trump openly espouses border controls and sending back ‘Mexican rapists’, and a tough, hard approach towards Muslims resident in the United States. He has also recently touched upon the ‘travails’ of the American ‘working class’- a phrase that was rather unheard of in the United States.

The United States, it needs to be stated here, is not a monolith; the country too is defined by fault lines, that are now coming out in the open. The well known fault line is between ‘blue’ and ‘red’ America encapsulated in the famed ‘culture wars’.  Overlaying these is the shrinking of the ‘white superstructure’ of the country with the arrival and settling of different ethnicities in the United States-Latinos, Greeks, ‘Asians’, Indians and other assorted ethnicities. These structural changes are impinging upon the ‘essence’ and ‘nature’ of the United States: the ‘settler nation’ is morphing into a genuine immigrant nation.  All these changes can be and are traumatic –at both a social and an individual level. Hence Donald Trump and his insidious brew of xenophobia, Islamophobia and their respective appeal thereof.

As of now, there is no real and profound challenge to Trump and his toxic and noxious brew.

The Democrats’ riposte to Trump is bland and even surreal-disconnected from the changes that are wracking the United States. And the Republicans appear to be too ‘ thrown off ‘ balance by the response to ‘Trumpism’.

The question then is: Will the United States gradually but inexorably morph into ‘Trumpistan’ or will the country ‘reinvent’ itself and stave  off a challenge that is perhaps as profound as the post Second Great War moment?

(By Trumpistan is meant an insular, inward looking, isolationist United States that goes against its foundational values and all that the country purports to stand for-historically and, yes, even con-temporarily).

The answer is: it all depends.

The United State’s nature, direction and trajectory will be contingent on a whole host of factors-the primary ones being its approach to the world (whether it engages or withdraws), the way it chooses to use its power- the form and content of this power,  and its overall comportment-within and without.

These are, admittedly, broad and generic themes. Broken down, what could they mean?

The United States essentially needs a course correction and comprehensive review. But key here is that this review cannot be left to be usurped by Trump and his ilk. Are there alternative themes that the country can countenance and adopt?

The answer may lie in the Harvard academic, Joseph Nye’s postulates about power- broad enough to subsume all the ills and travails that the United States is undergoing.

Nye, a reasonably profound thinker  , is famous for coining the term, ‘ soft power’, which roughly means ‘ attraction toward a society on account of its values, layer coined a phrase ‘ smart power’ which means a synthesis of hard and soft power- appropriate and germane to/in a world of states and the world we inhabit. Hard or military power by itself is a mugs game. It breeds reaction; and counterbalancing efforts by other states to resist the hard power wielding, domineering state.(In this day and age, hard power and its application also leads to resentment induced violence by non state actors). ‘ Smart Power’ by combining hard and soft power takes the edge out of hard power and is more durable and enduring given that it rests less on mere coercion but is contingent on the appeal of values and related ideas. Moreover, smart power with an emphasis on soft power leads to a more outward looking orientation and posture instead of an inward looking, insular one- precisely the approach and orientation that the United States needs for its much needed course correction and review.

The question is: which narrative will prevail? The ‘smart power’ approach that incorporates diverse themes and is reflective of United States’ foundational values and gives short shrift to the idea of the country as a ‘sleek capitalist machine’  with nothing to offer other than the measure of a person’s worth by ‘productivity’ and ‘social Darwinism’. Or will it be Trumpistan that will come to pass?

The nature, direction and essence of the United States will depend on the peoples forming the firmament of the United States and also its cultural and political elite. Americans, by and large, are a well meaning people. Of course, there are pockets of racism and ignorance but these do not necessarily define the country. It is the good side of most Americans that must predominate in these trying and testing times. This needs sober introspection and a leadership that is bold, beautiful and cathartic. The nature of this leadership must be politico-intellectual which means that the intellectual doyens of the country must step out and speak up. The United States needs direction. Rudderless and bereft of ideational, intellectual and political leadership, the country can veritably morph into Trumpistan- a condition that will not only constitute a travesty for the United States but perhaps the world at large as well.

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